To follow up on a comment from my “The Value of Why?” post, I want to share some thoughts on how small businesses can better frame the range of issues at hand and why often big business methods and frameworks often feel irrelevant.
In his comment to my post, Andrew wrote:
“I think one problem small business people have, especially really small, is figuring out how such things like ‘organizational strategy’ and ‘management strategy’ and ‘people marketing’ apply to them. Sure, I have a business degree and have worked at big companies, but as a pseudo one-person company, it’s easy to write off such terms and concepts as not applicable to me. And so it becomes easy to write off such valuable concepts and thinking processes because they seem to only apply to bigger organizations”
My thought is that the culprit is not the fact that these concepts don’t apply to a small business but rather that the concepts are often viewed from the wrong perspective of the entrepreneur.
Not to belabor Michael Gerber’s writings, but I think one of his concepts sets the seed for understanding this phenomena. Gerber describes three universal roles in small businesses. They are the technician (the one that conducts the actual technical work), the manager (the one who oversees the operations of the organization) and the entrepreneur (the one who sets the vision of where the company is going).
One can certainly agree or disagree with his categorization of roles. I am certain there are many others that could be identified in any particular business, but the main point is that in a small business these “characters” are often rolled up into one person. Specifically, the founder of the company has to take on all of these personalities (whether he or she is comfortable with them or not). Ignore any of these crucial roles and the business is going to flounder.
While Gerber argues that one has to take on these roles, I will take it one step further and argue that it is crucial for the entrepreneur not only to act out these roles but also be aware when he is doing it. It is also crucial to be able to comfortably flip back on forth between them. I believe that confusion on the relevance of “big business” concepts occurs when one is unaware that he is thinking from the perspective of one role while considering a business concept that applies to a different roll.
Let’s take an obvious example. Let’s say you own a small restaurant. You have a small staff to do some tasks, but for most of the time you are heavily involved in the “doing” of the business. You are the chef, the host, and the dishwasher. Those roles are pretty clear and it is obvious to you when you are in each role. Thus it is pretty easy to conceptualize how different strategies and methods are required for these separate aspects of the business. Ideas and concepts on how to be friendlier to customers seem relevant to you because you are well aware that at times you have to be the restaurant host. In fact, I would speculate I could talk to you about this while we are sitting in the kitchen cooking (working as the chef) and you would have absolutely no issue with it. You understand that you are not ALWAYS the chef and sometimes you are the host so talking about how to be cordial to your guests seems relevant.
But now let’s look at this same restaurant on a different level. The roles that I just described are very clear and obviously identified. You always know which one you are doing and they are quite mutually exclusive. On the other hand, the more conceptual roles of “Technician”, “Entrepreneur” and “Manager” are often not as clear cut, though equally as vital for the operation of the business (as a side note, Gerber would classify the chef, host, and dishwasher all as the duties of the “Technician”). It is very difficult for an entrepreneur to be cognizant of when he is in each role or even the need for each role.
This, I believe, is the situation where vital business concepts get tossed aside by the entrepreneur as something only for “big business” and “not relevant to me”. If the entrepreneur is acting as a technician (e.g. only focusing on being a chef, host and dishwasher) and not aware of the need to shift to the “entrepreneur” roll, any talk of long term strategies and growth would seem silly. The technician does not need to deal with issues of marketing the restaurant. To him people need to be greeted, food needs to be cooked and dishes need to be washed. The same would be true if a business founder always was in the “entrepreneur” mode and always focusing on the vision of the company. In this situation, discussions on the best methods to conduct tactics (e.g. dishwashing) would seem silly and irrelevant because to that individuals mind that is not the issue. The issue is how to grow for the long term.
Put another way; consider the first example of the chef, host, and dishwasher. Let’s say our restaurant owner had short term memory problems. He can only be aware of his immediate roll. Suddenly a discussion in the kitchen, when he is in the chef role, about how to better more friendly to customers seems silly. You could even imagine him saying “That stuff is just theory. It is only relevant to BIG restaurants!”
In big business it is easier to understand how concepts fit in with the company. There are more people to carry out rolls. Entire departments are build around the concepts of the “Entrepreneur”, “Manager” and “Technician” (Corporate Strategy, Operations, Product Development are just some examples). Of course these concepts seem relevant in this situation. How could they not? Individuals have title and job descriptions that are entirely build on single business concepts (e.g. Chief Financial Office, Chief Technology Office, Chief Operating Office)
The key to the smaller business owner is to be aware that these rolls (and many others) are often hidden and all rolled up into himself or his small staff. Thus “big business” concepts often can be mismatched to the wrong perspective set. The challenge is to leverage the many valuable business tools that are available by first learning to be fluid with one’s perspectives and see your company from a different, if not multiple, angles.